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Trump still leads the pack in Iowa. But other Republicans are hoping for an opening

Former President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on October 09, 2021 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Scott Olson
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Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on October 09, 2021 in Des Moines, Iowa.

The two leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination will share the same stage for the first time in Iowa Friday at the state party's Lincoln Dinner.

Former President Donald Trump maintains a double-digit lead over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in local polls, but Iowa GOP leaders say Trump has left an opening for DeSantis – and other rivals - to gain some ground.

Recently, Trump rubbed some Iowans the wrong way after ducking some prominent 'cattle calls' and publicly criticizing popular Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has pledged to remain neutral in the primary.

"It just kind of underlines the fatigue that I'm feeling from people who are concerned about the former president stepping on his own toes sometimes," said Brett Barker, the chair of the Story County Republican Party in Iowa.

"The governor has been very, very popular within the party in the state and is seen as the leader of the party in the state," he explained. "And, so for one of the candidates who wants to win the state to come in and not necessarily have the most flattering things to say, was, perplexing."

Presidential campaigning has already ramped into high gear in Iowa where the first presidential caucuses are less than six months away.

Several Republican candidates are frequenting the state, attending presidential forums, joining fundraisers with local county parties and hosting solo events.

Trump has shied away from most of the group forums and instead favored solo events. This dinner will be a good opportunity for voters to see him on the same stage with other candidates who are desperate to cut into his lead.

Those include former Vice President Mike Pence, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina who have all confirmed they will attend.

Iowa voters do expect to meet presidential candidates before they're willing to vote for them, and not just once, from a distance.

Early-state polling illustrates Trump's dominance. A recent Fox Business Iowa GOP caucus poll shows Trump leading, 46%, with DeSantis far behind at 16%. But it also showed Scott gaining some ground, polling at 11%.

Trump enjoys the benefit of somewhat pseudo-incumbency. Republican voters already know quite a bit about the former president.

But for those looking to gain traction, Trump's relative absence in Iowa has lent his rivals an opportunity.

The polls may show Trump ahead, but political science professor Rachel Paine Caufield says voters have different expectations in Iowa.

"Iowa voters do expect to meet presidential candidates before they're willing to vote for them, and not just once, from a distance," said Caufield, who is co-chair of the political science department at Drake University in Des Moines. "They expect to shake hands. They expect a real connection with a presidential candidate. That's what motivates them to show up on a snowy night in January at a caucus site."

And there have been some other signs of Trump's vulnerabilities.

Jeff Reichman, an Iowa state senator who'd previously endorsed Trump, for example, switched his support to DeSantis just days after the former president attacked Gov. Reynolds.

"How many times have we gritted our teeth and shook our heads at some of the things that the former president has said?" Reichman told NPR. "And then when it was focused on our governor, and I know her, I worked with her, I know her personally. It was too much. It was a bridge too far."

The Trump campaign does not appear to be concerned and has been touting recent Iowa polling.

"President Trump is CRUSHING the competition," Steven Cheung tweeted this week, linking to the Fox Business poll.

Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks to guests during the Joni Ernst's Roast and Ride event on June 03, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Scott Olson / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks to guests during the Joni Ernst's Roast and Ride event on June 03, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa.

It's still early though. Both Trump and other Republicans have time to pick up the pace. There is also time for some rivals to catch fire.

Haley and Scott, for example, have been generating buzz across Republican circles, according to both Barker and Caufield.

"I've seen Ambassador Haley a lot," Barker said. "And everywhere she goes, she really impresses people. She's one of those who I do think has the ability to catch people's attention."

Meanwhile, Scott has been rising in the polls as he gains name recognition.

"A couple of them seem to be gaining some momentum among kind of a party elite class that's looking for an alternative to Donald Trump," Caufield said. "So this is their chance to make that pitch. And whatever happens on Friday, it's the beginning of the conversation, not the end of the conversation."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.